With the release of the Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis just around the corner, a renewed spotlight is being shone onto the legendary rock and roll pioneer. The endless debates around Presley will seemingly never end – the songs, the looks, the entertainment value vs. actual skill, the debt he owes to Black culture. They are all fascinating discussion topics, but the reality is that no one would care to engage with these points if Presley hadn’t somehow remained culturally relevant for more than 70 years.
Despite what Luhrmann’s sensational (and heavily sensationalized) film may or may not say, it all started at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee on July 18th, 1953. That’s when an unknown 18-year-old Presley walked into the recording studio owned by Sam Phillips and paid four dollars to record a demo. Phillips wasn’t actually there to produce the song: he was busy recording already-established talent and couldn’t pay attention to every single person who wandered through to put something on vinyl.
Presley didn’t have much in the way of accompaniment. It was just him and his acoustic guitar, which was strummed as he sang for one complete live take. Presley expressed interest in giving the demo to his mother as a birthday gift, but Gladys Presley’s birthday had already passed three months prior. Besides, the Presley family didn’t even have a record player at the time. In all likelihood, Presley was either trying to get the attention of Phillips or was simply trying to get a demo that he could shop around to different groups or potential management.
When he stepped into the studio, Presley opted to record the pop ballad ‘My Happiness’ as his first-ever recording. The song was still a half-decade away from its most famous recording, Connie Francis’ 1958 rendition that hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1959, but ‘My Happiness’ had a history that extended back all the way to the early 1930s. Borney Bergantine wrote the song’s melody in 1933, but Betty Peterson Blasco wrote new lyrics and turned the song into its well-known form in 1948.
There were a number of versions of ‘My Happiness’ floating around the music world in the late ’40s, including takes from Ella Fitzgerald and the Pied Pipers both being early chart hits. Presley almost assuredly heard one of these on the radio, or perhaps heard covers from various live performers around Memphis as a teenager. In any case, the young singer memorised the melody, lyrics, and chord changes enough to be confident in the song as his first recording.
A single acetate copy of ‘My Happiness’, recorded along with the song ‘That’s When Your Heartache Begins’, was pressed and given to Presley, who hung on to it for the rest of his life. It’s uncertain whether Presley actually wound up giving the rough vinyl cut to his mother or not, but the acetate remained preserved and eventually went on sale in 2015. The buyer of the original pressing was none other than Jack White, who bought the acetate for an estimated $300,000 and had it preserved in the vaults of his record company/vinyl plant, Third Man Records.